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At West Side High School, Vigilance is Bliss

From the first time you speak to Principal Jean McTavish—who has been at the helm of Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School for the past 13 years—you can hear in her voice that she’s willing to fight for her students’ futures.

West Side High School sits on the Upper West Side, conjuring images of well-to-do families and upper middle class amenities. However, West Side High School is located in the middle of the Frederick Douglass housing project on West 102nd street. “Mayor de Blasio talks about the tale of two cities. It’s very much magnified where we are,” she said.

West Side High School is a transfer school, designed to meet the needs of students that have not found success in traditional high school settings. For many of its 551 students, it’s their last chance to complete high school. West Side students have endured a variety of experiences in their 17-21 years; some have been incarcerated, some have become parents, some battle life threatening diseases such as cancer or HIV, and many have lost a family member to disease, crime or violence. Students come to West Side High School for a second chance. “The focus on wellness is super critical for us,” said McTavish. “It is my vision that in a school like ours where there's a very high prevalence of ADHD and post-traumatic stress, that if we had some gym equipment in the classroom—a stationary bike or a treadmill—that we could help them to stay focused on their schoolwork... teaching kids to use physical activity to manage those things is very powerful.”

With the odds stacked against West Side High School students and staff, it is even more impressive that the school was one of only six to earn the Alliance for Healthier Generation’s National Healthy Schools Gold Award during the 2013-2014 school year. “My students have experienced a tremendous amount of setbacks or have had trouble being successful in school. So for them to be able to be a champion in school is huge,” McTavish said.

Spinning by Example

Before the school day begins, McTavish offers spin classes for students, staff, parents, and community members looking for a healthy way to manage stress and improve their fitness. Being a spin instructor gives her added “chops” with her students, especially when she challenges them to push their limits. “We have athletes that come from our rugby or softball teams to work out with me. So I’ll say: ‘Don’t let the old lady beat you!’ Then we see each other in the hallway later in the day and, especially the boys, will say: ‘Oh my gosh, she’s no joke!’”

McTavish believes that getting buy-in from her staff has been key to the school’s success. She requires that teachers and staff adhere to the same guidelines that they ask their students to follow. “Kids watch adults like nobody’s business,” she said. “If a teacher has a can of soda in school now, it causes a big uproar.”

Joining the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program in 2011 gave the school wellness council clear goals to work towards, and the Framework of Best Practices guides implementation. “I cannot thank the Alliance enough for providing us with a structure to talk about wellness in a way that really engaged every member of our community,” said McTavish. “Teenagers usually resist just about everything you put in front of them, but they never complained about going for the National Healthy Schools Awards. It just became part of our mantra.”

Removing the Barriers, One Layer at a Time

One of the last battles McTavish fought for her students in their quest for Gold was to serve chicken breasts without the skin in the cafeteria. This sounds like a simple request, but McTavish notes, “To ask that huge organization to consider your school—one of 1,700 schools—individually is unheard of.” And there is a reason why. The Office of School Food and Nutrition in New York City feeds 1.1 million children every day. With that magnitude of operations, it can be difficult to maintain efficiency while responding to individual school requests.

That is why it’s best to have Principal McTavish in your corner when you step into the ring. Her persistence paid off and her emails were eventually answered! She worked with the district food service department to find a brand of chicken breast that met the Alliance’s criteria, securing Gold status for her school. She advises that school champions must be patient, but stay vigilant when advocating for changes from large institutions. “It takes between five and 1,500 repetitions for learning to happen in the classroom. For institutions, it takes closer to 1,500.”

When the vending company failed to stock the machines with Alliance-approved snacks, McTavish simply turned the machines around to face the wall. “I told [the vendor] that I don’t have to sell any food in my school, thank you very much, and please take your machines,” laughs McTavish. West Side High School no longer sells snacks to students, but instead she and her assistant principals round up uneaten fruit after lunch and display it in a bowl in the main office for students to snack on when they feel hungry.

Toning Up and Changing the Tone

Making time for physical activity and prioritizing healthy food during the school day can take time away from academics, but McTavish knows her school’s efforts are paying dividends. “You have to take a risk and say: What do I have to lose by having my kids take a few minutes over the course of a period to do some brain breaks before settling down to do a literacy activity? That requires taking a risk that too many people are not willing to take,” she said. “But the research shows that when you do that, the payoff is tremendous.”

West Side High School staff see that payoff every day in classrooms, the weight room, and the cafeteria. “Kids come to school more when they're healthy. Staff come to school more when they're healthy. When we feel better, not only do we do schoolwork better but we treat each other better as well,” McTavish said. West Side High School’s graduation rate has improved by 10 percentage points, and its drop-out rate has declined by 5. “The tone of our school is definitely changing for the better,” she said.

McTavish has also noticed improvements in relationships between teachers and students. Recently, a group of teachers asked if they could use professional development time to host a volleyball tournament. McTavish agreed and was amazed by the results “That volleyball game increased their morale, their comradery; it made a huge difference. They got to see each other in a different way, kind of the same way the kids get to see me in a different way when I spin with them.”

Thinking it was a longshot, McTavish promised a school-wide celebration if they were successful in achieving the National Healthy Schools Gold Award. Students from a health class whipped up fruit smoothies, while students and teachers played volleyball and basketball in the gymnasium. McTavish ordered dozens of pizza pies from a local pizzeria that uses whole wheat and spelt dough, vegan cheese, and lots of vegetarian toppings. Much to her surprise, none of the students complained about the healthier alternatives. “That was our high-stakes test to be a healthy school. If we can put down that kind of pizza and have not one student reject it—they were happy about it—we definitely reached our goal!”